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Quainton News Archive - Quainton News No. 31 - Spring 1977

On Location - Part 3 - Our Film Correspondent

Part 1 of the story of making a film about mechanical signalling on the Midland main line appeared in Quainton News No. 23 and Part 2 in No. 26. In the penultimate paragraph of Part 2, our correspondent wrote .....

'The next sequence has to be filmed from the air .....' and we now take up the story at this stage .....

A pilot was found (a cousin who is with BOAC) and discussions followed as to the make of aircraft to be used. Chris Hanscomb was told he would be expected to hang out of the open door in order to get really effective shots! "and for goodness sake don't let go of the camera". The filming was to be carried out somewhere in the Luton area because the plane would be hired from Luton Flying Club. Steve, the pilot, would work it all out with Control and there would be time for two runs to be made and therefore two shots to be taken.

The idea was to hire a Diesel Shunter from BR to chug out of the station up the down line (i.e. running "Wrong Line") past the signal box and into the Down Siding while the express from St Pancras to Leicester thundered towards it, only a few miles away and at 90mph. Excellent and exciting when filmed from the air! Only a short time was available to film it and the plane had to be in exactly the right position. Working out angles for the shots wouldn't be at all easy and hiring the plane was going to be expensive. It would all have to be done in one hour, from take-off to landing. No testing of camera angles, just hang out of the door and shoot!

With the Director 1000 feet below, how on earth would he and the cameraman communicate? "Got it", said Mike suddenly, "Walkie talkies!" Phone calls galore were made to find where to hire them. Steve and Chris had another conference. Would Steve be able to keep in touch with the Control Tower, with Mike on the ground and fly the aircraft? ''No difficulty, just don't all talk to me at once. By the way Chris, are you likely to be air sick, we're going to have a hectic time I "Will it be safe?" asked Mrs H. somewhat anxiously. " As houses", said Mike, "so long as Chris doesn't drop the camera!"

Weather was going to be the next problem and Steve might be over the Atlantic with BOAC when he was needed for filming! Then it was learnt that walkie-talkies wouldn't be effective at that range. Overnight, the sequence was scrubbed. "Can I mention the suggestion I made some weeks back?" asked Mrs H., thankful that one son was not going to be dangling half out of a small aeroplane. "You mean 'Diesel-left-to-right', cut to 'Express-right-to-left', build up the tension with several quick shots?" "Yes, I suppose we could do something along those lines", agreed Mike.

So he and Chris went to Luton and began working on a new shooting script. The story line was easy - girl boards express for Leicester and Signalmen signal it from box to box all the way up. But how do you film it to make it interesting and informative? Mike wanted to show how a shunting engine can be signal led, in complete safety, across the path of an approaching express. This film would show exactly how the absolute block system worked before the old mechanical signalling was finally superseded by the all-electric panel boxes.

PRO Euston were approached again with a request for the hire of a Diesel Shunter, Driver and Inspector and permission to film in and around Luton signal box and on the down platform. They agreed to all the requests, so Saturday, 3rd April found 8 of us at Luton, not too sure what we had let ourselves in for and hoping the weather would hold. It was sunny but windy and someone had lit a bonfire near the box and smoke was apt to drift across when it was least needed!

The shooting script had been timed meticulously, even down to the Driver's PNB (physical needs break). The Diesel shunter was due in the siding at 12 noon and we aimed to have everything ready so that we could begin shooting at once. We arrived at 10.30 am and the Driver at 11. Everything was put forward by an hour and the shooting script went by the board. We had to change the order of some of the shots and keep our wits about us! Luckily, a professional cameraman, himself a railway enthusiast had most generously offered his services so we could divide the shooting between him and Chris. The two cameramen had assistants who kept in touch with the Director by walkie talkie. They were also responsible for holding the cue boards with the "shot and take" numbers chalked on and for relaying all the instructions to the cameramen. They ticked off the shots as they were taken, listing the number of takes for each shot and any other information that might be of use to Chris when he did the rough edit.

Mike, as Director, was in the Signal box, one eye on the clock and one on the Signalman, who was telling him whenever there was a big enough gap between the Down trains to allow the Diesel to come out on to the main line. And so it went on nonstop until 4.30. "Director to Camera A, the Diesel will be coming past the box in 3 minutes, are you ready for your shot-high angle pan-?" "Camera A to Director-yes we are ready. Will have to reload after this shot" (The Signalman's loo was just right for this!)

At one stage the walkie talkie for Camera B went out of action and there were several anxious moments as Mike tried to contact him. The Diesel was in the platform waiting to come past the box; the express was somewhere near Elstree. "I can give you three more minutes" said the Signalman calmly. Mike looked out of the window towards the platform. Camera A was at the end of the platform ready to do a low angle shot of the wheels and connecting rods as the engine went by. How to get the Diesel to draw up to the shunt signal? "Camera A, I cannot raise Camera B! Would you tell them to come forward now, quickly!" Our air of professionalism was totally ruined as two people yelled to the Diesel "Move forward now" but at least we got a lovely shot of the Driver at the controls and a shot of the wheels and connecting rods. The express tore round the corner only minutes after the Diesel had reached the refuge of the siding.

By 4.30 we were exhausted! Our heads were spinning as we compared notes. We had all the shots ticked off so they must all have been taken. People do this sort of thing for a living!! It's terribly hard work!


The text in this Quainton Railway Society publication was written in 1977 and so does not reflect events in the 38+ years since publication. The text and photographs are repeated verbatim from the original publication, with only a few minor grammar changes but some clarifying notes are added if deemed necessary. The photos from the original publication are provided as scans in this internet version of this long out of print publication.

On Location - Part 3 - Our Film Correspondent - Quainton News No. 31 - Spring 1977

Text © Quainton Railway Society / Photographs © Quainton Railway Society or referenced photographer
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